Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Melissa Goode’s fiction piece, Extreme Unction
John: Should we have something like Extreme Unction for relationships? And if so, why don’t we?
Melissa: I think within many relationships a form of Extreme Unction occurs. It involves forgiveness and acceptance either during the course of the relationship or at the end of a relationship. Taking marriage, for example, as in this story, unlike where a person is dying and is given the sacrament by a priest, this form of Extreme Unction is given by one spouse to the other.
The standard version of Extreme Unction involves forgiveness of one’s sins. What would the relationship version look like?
To me, the relationship form of “Extreme Unction” requires, first, for a person to view their spouse in the context of the space and time in which they have been together, the life they have lived, and what they have given to each other.
Secondly, it requires a person to respect that their spouse has agency and makes their own decisions, controls their own actions and identity. This means recognising that individuality and freedom are fundamental to the survival of personhood.
Finally, it requires the person to accept and forgive their spouse for any wrongs or perceived wrongs, and hopefully love them in spite of it all. If they cannot do this, or if love is outweighed by other feelings, then to me that is the end of the marriage.
These are very much my thoughts, but I think this form of Extreme Unction, for relationships, mirrors Extreme Unction given at the end of a person’s life. Where a person cares deeply about their spouse, then they will grant “Extreme Unction” time and again. Hopefully, they will receive it too.
The narrator in this story says that she doesn’t believe and doesn’t not believe. This isn’t the same thing as agnosticism, but instead seems like its own category of faith. What would it be like to live in a state of simultaneous faith and doubt?
I was raised as a Catholic. However, since I was a teenager, I have lived in a state of simultaneous faith and doubt, like many people do. I think that being raised in the Catholic faith is complex—as one of my university teachers told me, there is no such thing as a “nominal Catholic” (which I had claimed to be at the time). It stays with you. As with many religions, the particular values and beliefs you are taught, weigh heavily on the heart and mind.
I think the state of simultaneous faith and doubt is like living in a state of conflict, because often you want to believe, but that is not the same thing as belief which has nothing to do with wanting or not wanting—belief is a state of being. For example, after a loved one dies, I want to believe that their soul has an afterlife and I will be reunited with them again. Faith would let me believe this, but doubt stops me, or only gives me a half-way house where I oscillate between wanting to believe, convincing myself that I believe, moments of believing and moments of not believing at all.
I am grateful for the awareness of spirituality that my upbringing has given me and I sometimes long for the comfort that faith brings to people. I feel an immense sadness to not have the faith that others have. At the same time, I know that I will perpetually stay in this place of faith and doubt. There is a certain freedom there—to only ever be able to trust my own mind, to only ever do things consciously and willingly and not give myself over to a catechism. Some people may say that isn’t faith at all, but I think, as you say, it can be its own category of faith.
The two characters in this story have chosen dramatically different soundtracks for their failing marriage, though both songs center around a certain sense of alienation. Is love actually impossible, as Chris Isaak would have us believe?
I think Radiohead’s “Let Down” and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” are both classic songs about alienation. To me, relationships go through periods of alienation. I don’t think you can have two, thinking, honest individuals living together without moments of breakdown in communication and understanding. Sometimes those periods of alienation can be extreme and destabilising and test the relationship and, in some cases, test it to the end. But I completely, utterly and helplessly believe in love. It is possible and makes people bear incredible weight and survive those periods of alienation.
I think some people mistake infatuation for love. I also think some people are not in love but are in a state of habit or co-dependency, tied together by obligation and history. Although, I say that knowing that I am on the outside looking in. No one truly knows what goes on between two people in a relationship other than those two people.
To me, love is its own thing. It is not always pretty. It makes you do things you thought you would never do. It makes you give yourself over to another person and it sometimes makes you take the other person to their limits.
There are certainly similarities between religious faith and a belief in love—they are both unseen forces that are impossible to quantify. Is a similar state of belief/not belief required for us to try to love?
Yes, to me, the capacity to love depends upon a belief in love. As I mentioned in relation to religious faith, belief is beyond rational thought. To me, we do not choose who we love—we love the other person regardless of rational thought, regardless of self-protection or best interests. In that way, love is merciless and cruel. I also think it is the most beautiful thing you can ever give to another person. I have had the privilege of loving my husband for twenty-three years, more than half of our lives, until his death a couple of months ago. I still love him and I always will. I cannot think of anything more precious than to give and receive love, to be in love.
The helpless, all-consuming belief in love, the belief that love is the ultimate goal in life, reminds me of the poem by Raymond Carver, “Late Fragments”:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.